Birds win in fight over wind farm near northwest Missouri wildlife refuge

Snow geese flocked to the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in March. Oregon-based Element Power has now dropped its $400 million plan to build Missouri’s largest wind farm in Holt County near the refuge.
Snow geese flocked to the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in March. Oregon-based Element Power has now dropped its $400 million plan to build Missouri’s largest wind farm in Holt County near the refuge. The Kansas City Star

An energy company’s $400 million plan to build Missouri’s biggest wind farm near a national bird sanctuary in Holt County appears dead.

The news was welcomed Monday by opponents who never understood why the company, Element Power of Portland, Ore., thought it would be a good idea to erect 84 to 118 wind turbines, each nearly 350 feet tall, directly in the migratory path of birds.

Ornithologists, the National Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy and birders in general predicted slaughter for birds and bats flying into the whipping turbines. The proposed site was 25,000 leased acres just east of the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City.

In March, a million snow geese showed up at the refuge.

“It’s like they (Element officials) didn’t have a clear understanding of what that site was and what was at stake,” John Rushin said Monday.

Rushin, a former head of the biology department at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, has worked and researched at Squaw Creek for 30 years. When the plan was announced earlier this year, he said: “If I could look all over northern Missouri for the worst possible place to put this thing, this would be it.”

Element Power could not be reached for comment Monday.

But Mark Sitherwood, presiding commissioner of Holt County, said an Element official had left him a voice message saying the company was pulling out of the Mill Creek Wind Energy Project. Sitherwood also said that landowners had received written notices of lease termination.

He didn’t know what happened.

“We were working with the company, and then all of a sudden, everything just quit,” Sitherwood said. “They just quit communicating with us. Opponents thought it was a horrible place for it, and I’m sure that had something to do with their decision.”

Every year, millions of migratory birds — pelicans, wood ducks, trumpeter swans, blue-winged teals, sandhill cranes, blue herons, snow geese and smaller shorebirds such as killdeer — find their way to Squaw Creek’s wetlands.

After a layover, they get a boost from the updraft wind hitting the nearby Loess Hills, which formed thousands of years ago from wind-blown soil. Opponents worried that the project could alter age-old migratory patterns.

They also worried about endangered species such as the bald eagle and the Indiana bat that also frequent the refuge. Several state conservation areas, such as Nodaway Valley and Honey Creek, also sit around the site.

Scott Zeimetz, a project manager for Element, had said the Mill Creek project would comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Opponents insisted they fully support wind energy, just not near a migratory bird refuge.

Michael Hutchins, a national coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign, had said the project appeared “poorly sited” and urged the company to come up with an alternative plan.

Jack Hilsabeck of the Audubon Society of Missouri called the site selection “ridiculous.”

Rushin said he thought the company’s decision came down to environmental protection. There were a lot of conservationists against the plan — “going up the line,” he said.

Economics played a role, too, he figured.

“A lot of people go up there to see the birds,” he said. “They spend money.”

People in the area came down on both sides, said Sitherwood, who supported the wind farm early on. The county had hit some lean years from drought and flood and could use a $400 million project, he said.

The county may have supported it more if the agriculture interests were more pasture land than row cropping, Sitherwood said. Turbines on pasture are less intrusive.

“I still got mixed feelings about the whole thing,” he said. “But it’s dead in its tracks now.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.